Sony Ericsson Xperia X10

 The Xperia X10 is Sony Ericsson's flagship, and first, Android device and part of a family of three that will be hitting the market this year, the others being the X10 mini and the X10 mini pro. For a company that has struggled recently to keep pace with the acceleration in smartphones, the X10 carries quite a weight of responsibility on its shoulders.

On paper, the X10 looks to combine all the winning aspects of a high-end Android smartphone. First and foremost it has that expansive 4-inch capacitive touchscreen, with a sharp 480 x 854 pixel resolution, finished with scratch-resistant layer that runs edge to edge. We're not sold entirely on the design of the front: it lacks the elegance that other devices offer and we found the edges of the screen were prone to catching pocket lint, so we were forever cleaning it.

With a 4-inch screen it's a big beast, measuring 119 x 63 x 13mm and weighing 135g. That puts it larger than the HTC Desire and the Acer Liquid, pushing towards the massive HTC HD2 and the HTC Evo.

It is big on the inside too, with the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the chip responsible for powering many of the current top rung devices. There is 1GB of internal memory which will get you started for storage, with an 8GB microSD card bundled in the box too.

A number that is sure to grab headlines is the 8.1-megapixel camera around the back, the highest megapixel count in an Android device to date, matched by the yet to appear HTC Evo, an indicator of where Android handsets might be heading with their cameras.

You also get all the connectivity you'd expect: there is the HSDPA connection, Wi-Fi b/g, Bluetooth 2.0+EDR and GPS; you get those accelerometers to reorient the screen, a proximity sensor and a light sensor. So from a hardware point of view, the Xperia X10 looks competitive.

The build quality is reasonable, but it doesn't have the strong design that the HTC Desire has and the use of plastics rather than metals sets it apart from that device. We actually like the back of the device however, with Sony Ericsson choosing a matte black tactile back, so it stays free from fingerprints. A chrome-effect layer runs around the edges dividing the two halves of the device.

The curved edges to the rear means it sits nicely in the hand: it is a nice device to hold. There is, unfortunately a sharp edge running across the top of the device, which can dig into your ear when you are making a call. We also found the in-call volume to be a little low, so we were forever repositioning it to get the speaker in the best position to hear the caller.

Across the top of the device you find a standby/power button, a central 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro-USB connection hidden under a flap. We're not sold on the flap - given that some people will have this phone for 2 years on contract, and the frequent charging it will need, we think the flap is just going to be irritating.

Running across the bottom of the X10 below the screen at the three control buttons. These give you menu, home and back, with no sign of the normal search option that we find useful on Android devices. The right-hand side offers up a volume rocker (which doubles as the digital zoom) and a dedicated button for the camera. Press and hold the menu button and the keyboard will pop-up, which seems to be a system-wide feature. Press and hold the home button and you get the normal shortcut panel.

Some might sniff at the use of Android 1.6, however, when rival devices are offering the latest 2.1 version. As we've seen with other devices, this means that you will find yourself waiting for Sony Ericsson to push out the latest Android updates. Android geeks will despair (as they will with the still-to-appear and even more outdated Motorola Quench) but for your average consumer, they probably won't worry about software versions so much.

Like the Motorola Quench, the Xperia X10 has been customised heavily. Some of these changes are substantial, like the camera interface, and others minor, like the keyboard changes. Sony Ericsson told us that they had covered some of the 2.1 changes with tweaks of their own, but we'd rather see the core Android version being the most up-to-date, rather than something bolted on to the side. Once such example is the addition of the Moxier suite to boost the email offering.

Start the device up and you are led through a setup process which is simple enough and can be easily changed through the menus or settings at a later date. The Sony Ericsson home page offers you a central home page with a left and right swipe. These three pages, as normal, can be customised with widgets, shortcuts and so on.

The widget offering isn't that impressive. There is a useful browser summary that gives you your most visited and history, so you can jump right to pages, but things like the calendar is rather limited and the power manager doesn't include changing the screen brightness or turning off background syncing.

Sony Ericsson's two headline applications are Timescape and Mediascape. This is where the X10 looks to sell itself against the likes of Motoblur or HTC Sense, with Timescape and Mediascape both dabbling in the integration of your digital world. We'll deal with each in turn.

Timescape is essentially a social networking timeline. Presented as individual tiles, it offers to integrate a number of "splines" which you can pick and choose between, and navigate between across the bottom of the page. The transition between splines is pretty slick, the tiles leaping off to one side with new tiles jumping in.

The main sources of external information are Facebook and Twitter (MySpace is detailed on some spec sheets although wasn't an option on our device) with each update from your online buddies appearing in a tile. Each tile shows the source of the information, pulling in the person's name and picking up their picture and using it as the background for the tile.

It sounds lovely, but Timescape seems to have missed a number of opportunities. First up, graphically it scrolls smoothly up and down the page, but the background image it pulls in is poor quality. Sure, it is supposed to be a subtle touch in the background, but it could look much better. Facebook does look better than Twitter (no doubt due to higher resolution original images), but we still think it could be more distinct.

You are also stuck on that tiled view. Tapping on one of the tiles gives you an enlarged view, tapping again feeds you through to Twitter's mobile homepage in the browser. You can't click into a list, which is a bit of a waste. It is pulling your Twitter feed, yet you can't view it in the clear - you have to download a separate client if you want a regular view, which then pulls in its own data. Considering the quantity of Twitter updates that many people will received, a list view is pretty much essential. For those that only follow a few people who only update a few times a day, this isn't so important, but follow 300 people and you'll never keep up on Timescape. Facebook isn't such an issue because the rate of updates is slower, but again you get that one view only, and selecting a tile will take you to the Facebook mobile homepage.

There is perhaps a saving grace, which is integration into Contacts. Bizarrely there is no direct contacts application access and no widget (you can drop shortcuts to individual contacts on the home pages however). Access to your contacts list is via two routes. You can access through the dialler, or you can access them though a Timescape tile.

When you have selected a Timescape tile, there will be an infinity symbol (∞) in the top right-hand corner. This will take you through to the contact concerned (for Twitter and Facebook updates). It isn't quite as slick as you might like, because you still have to manually tell it who is who and link contacts to Facebook and Twitter profiles. But once that is done, you'll get a contact page with all their updates on it, as well as all their contact details, phone and message history and so on.

This integration is neat enough, but the fact you have to manually tell it who is who is a bit of a let down. Add to that the fact that despite it pulling in images from Twitter and Facebook, it doesn't the automatically populate your contact's picture - you are left to do that manually and surprise, surprise, there is no option to use the picture from Facebook or Twitter. But this being Android, you could always download a picture from their Facebook profile (a few clicks using the Dolphin browser we installed) and add it manually.

Timescape also presents your photo and music stream in the same way, letting you click through to view your photos in fullscreen. It's a shame you don't get a nice clean swipe action like you would on the iPhone or HTC devices. Again you'll get an infinity symbol which will take you through to a thumbnail display, but also breaking out people tags.

There is some crossover here with Mediascape. Essentially Mediascape is a media manager. It is divided into Music, Video and Photos and is simple enough to use and click through. Switching between these major categories gives you a nice swirl effect as it scatters and reorders your content, bit the hint of delay makes you think the application needs further refinement - especially given the 1GHz processor offering up so much power.

The music section gives Sony Ericsson's PlayNow service a change to peddle its wares, probably the most accessible and prominent we've seen the service. Sony Ericsson told us that the door was open for other services, for example Spotify, which will be bundled with the X10 on the 3 network in the UK (for 2 months), but we haven't seen exactly how this integrates, if at all. 

The photo section offers up your local images as well as those from online sources, in this case Facebook and Picasa, so you can browse your own pictures, but the X10 doesn't offer up easy access to any one else's photos like HTC Sense does. The omission of Flickr seem strange, but again, it could be added in the future.

We've all got used to using Sony's XrossMediaBrowser including on Sony Ericsson phones, buy Mediascape is a complete departure. Mediascape, whilst easy to use, doesn't really push the boundaries in any direction. You could have access to online videos here too (YouTube is mentioned in some spec sheets, but we didn't have this service offered up in Mediascape in our device), or even better, access to network videos which would have rounded things off nicely and made Mediascape much more compelling.

As a media player, the 3.5mm jack is welcomed, but the bundled headphones are of the hard plastic type, best tossed aside and replaced with something better. Dive into your music and we were impressed with the sound quality, but the X10 really misses a media player widget. You can at least change the volume using the buttons when the screen is locked.

The other big sell of the Xperia X10 is the camera. Although not branded as a Cyber-shot phone, you can see some of this heritage in the handset. We like the changes that Sony Ericsson have made over the usual Android camera. The autofocus works well enough, with touch focusing available, as well as face detection. You also get a range of scene selections and focusing options, which are perhaps over the top, but are at least easy to select and change.

An LED illuminator is sitting under the camera lens on the back, but we were surprised to find that control of this "flash" is via an advanced settings menu. There is no icon toggle or auto mode, so we suspect many will forget it exists. Low light capture is reasonable, and certainly better than many other camera phones we've used.

Given the 8.1-megapixels, huge screen and powerful processor, you might expect HD capture, but you are sadly denied. WVGA (800 x 480 pixels) is the top setting, although to be fair, footage captured at that resolution looks good, averaging around 28fps. When we asked Sony Ericsson about the camera, they interestingly told us that future updates would "unlock the hardware". Whether this means HD video will be available in the future we can't be sure, but we already know that the company plans to make updates to this phone's software as the year rolls on.

There is no doubt that the screen is very capable and watching movies is great, although the format support isn't wide, offering MPEG4, 3GPP and WMV, and then struggling to play some of the MPEG4s that we tried. However, once you have the formats right, it looks sensational and ran smoothly enough. The default media player was a little limiting, but third party media players are common enough.

If you are hoping that the Xperia X10 will hold its own against the iPhone or the HTC Desire in terms of touch response, you'll sadly be disappointed. We found the X10 too sensitive in menus, often selecting when we were trying to scroll, and at other times dragging its heels, especially in the keyboard.

The X10 brings with it a slightly tweaked keyboard, but we found frequent freezes when typing. It also isn't as clever as the HTC Sense keyboard (although you could retro add that, but that's hardly the point). Suggested words appear, but they are on two lines, offering up far too many options - around 20. When the touch response isn't great, actually picking out one of these words isn't as accurate as it should be, so it's all a little underwhelming.

The browser is pretty much standard Android stuff but there is no Flash support like you'll see on HTC devices and no multitouch support either. However, given the screen space, the Xperia X10 makes a nice platform for browsing the Internet.

The battery life is as you'd expect from a large screened device. With all the connections on, updating frequently, you'll see the battery slip away within your average working day. Turn it all off and you'll fare a little better, but this is definitely a phone that needs a regular connection to a power supply.

Verdict

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 then looks ill-fated. We've drawn out some of the flaws we found above, many of which could be changed with revised software. It perhaps suggests that the X10 is arriving to market before it is really ready to do so. Sloppy little things, like not being able to enter contact details when composing a message in landscape format (because it won't access the address book), just shouldn't happen. The question is whether those changes will be made, along with updates to the Android operating system, soon enough for the X10 to be competitive.

But we found other problems with X10. The Wi-Fi range seemed limited, with the handset dropping the connection in locations that we have no problems with other phones. The microSD card sometimes reported back that it was protected and images weren't able to be saved, both of which suggest something isn't quite right.

As a first step, the Xperia X10 is unlikely to win any praises for Sony Ericsson, and following a line of handsets that have been ill-received, this is a real shame. It perhaps doesn’t bode well for the X10 mini and X10 mini pro. There is potential in the X10 though: the camera is very capable and the concept behind Timescape and Mediascape is sound, but neither go far enough to offer the integrated experience that many will expect.

Packed with the tech specs to make it look good on paper, unfortunately the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 doesn't measure against its lesser-specced rivals. Unless the X10 can plug some of these holes, we can't promise that the X10 will deliver an experience on par with the rest of the pack. 



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